E-Reporting Biz: It Can Be Dangerous Being An E-Journalist in the Digital Age

January 15, 2010

By BUD WARD

Be careful out there.

With all its wealth of riches and extraordinary research opportunities, the digital age of environmental journalism has brought with it an ugly underbelly characterized by increasingly bitter personal exchanges and accusations and a sucking-up of countless hours of productive reporting time and effort.

Were it not for the overall down-sizing challenges in the current news and economic climate, one might think covering the environment would surely qualify as hazardous duty pay.

The push-back from aggressive independent reporting is felt nowhere so much as when journalists plow into the issues central to reporting on climate change or "global warming," as numerous SEJ members have noted concerning their own in-boxes.

A frequent concern among a growing number of journalists is how precisely — and in some cases indeed whether — they should respond to sometimes vile online criticisms not only of their reporting in a particular story, but also of their fundamental integrity and journalistic skills. It's a dilemma some leading climate scientists have been grappling with for years: Feed the beast of online and often partisan criticisms, the thinking goes, and you only legitimize it and further enable it: You become engulfed in a seemingly endless and no-win series of sometimes nasty exchanges and personal attacks

But let them go unanswered and the criticisms are just that — unanswered and with uncertain validity. Heads you lose, tails your critic wins.

Recent examples abound of reporters getting sucked into the endless muck of charge and counter-charge stemming from their coverage of climate change, some sad and ironic in their tone and others simply shameful:

ITEM: Climate contrarian and blogger Marc Morano, he of former Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) fame, takes on a part-time blogger for The Washington Post, strangely attributes that blogger's comments to the newspaper as a whole (as if it were an editorial), challenges the blogger to a face-to-face debate (the internet age's version of the duel), and then gloats obsessively because the blogger — i.e., the Post — doesn't deign to agree to a face-off on a snarky pretend-TV network operated by pseudojournalism interests.

ITEM: Respected science and environmental writer Andrew C. Revkin of The New York Times engages by Skype interview in what he called a "mind experiment" before an audience of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Revkin's sin: pondering, always risky, the relationship between population growth (read smaller families) and the greenhouse gas emissions linked to a warming planet. The blogs go ballistic, and within days bloviating talk show host Rush Limbaugh proposed a solution: Revkin could call it a day (suicide, that is) to make the world a better place. So much for discourse.

ITEM: Another example. In this time when discerning who is and who is not a reporter or a journalist is often difficult, a "special correspondent for the Heartland Institute" blogged on the conservative American Spectator site under the headline "Juliet Eilperin is a Joke," referring to the The Washington Post's environmental reporter. (SEJers may want to note also the writer's opening words introducing Eilperin as "yet another template-follower from the Society of Environmental Journalists." The gripe here? Eilperin's acceptance of the climate science as espoused by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the National Academy of Sciences, and virtually every professional scientific organization deserving of the name. The "attack," as it's labeled in a blog the next day on the same site, is countered by a piece headlined "Juliet Eilperin is No Joke." It ends up being a defense with its own line of attack embedded, by a writer who says "I think this whole idea of a crisis of man-made global warming is an absolute, irredeemable farce." So much for science.

ITEM: Don't dare conclude from this partial listing that all the barbs at serious journalism are coming from just the conservative or climate-science-skeptical wing of the spectrum. Prolific Center for American Progress blogmeister Joe Romm is scarcely the darling of the denial crowd, but his pointed, and often downright vicious, barbs at Revkin, The Times generally, and other independent journalists raise vexing questions even among those who find his scientific writings worthy of review and consideration. His attacks on real journalists leave some wishing his laser would focus with unremitting force on increasing greenhouse gases, and not on those reporting the hard (in many senses of that term) news as best they can.

ITEM: Is the press event real or a joke? Remember the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's recent petition of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a trial on climate science (a chamber official actually compared it to infamous Scopes monkey trial)? Talk about slapstick. But then along comes something called theyesmen.org staging their own faux chamber press conference that mocked the business group's long-standing opposition to regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. (Memo to Files: When your adversary is self-destructing, don't offer up silly distractions, even if a few less-than-meticulous news outlets do briefly fall for the gag, hook, line and sucker.)

The climate, of course, and long-term climate trajectories and trends pay no heed. While erstwhile reporters spend precious time distracted by silly blogosphere sideshows, greenhouse-gas concentrations continue to mount, politicians continue to fiddle, and international negotiations continue to flounder. Public understanding of the complex challenges and riddles, and also of the potential opportunities, goes nowhere fast, worsens even.

If one wanted to arrest serious journalism on what most knowledgeable journalists accept as a serious issue ...

If one wanted to stall public understanding of climate science needed to support strong public policy …

If one wanted to confuse the electorate, their political leaders, compliant editors, and more …

Then you take a page from the playbook just detailed in the above items.

And the problem is that there are a lot more examples where those came from. How, and whether, reporters grapple with these distractions may go a long way in shaping how well the American public understands, or doesn't understand, the climate challenge they and future generations will face.

Commenting recently on the challenges facing responsible journalism in the digital age, respected KQED and San Jose Mercury News reporter Paul Rogers thought about his 2 1/2-year-old son's recent Halloween outing. "He was a fireman for Halloween. His daddy convinced him it was safer than being a journalist in the internet age," Rogers joked.

Funny, huh?

And also true. Just one more challenge facing today's environmental journalists.

Bud Ward, a founding SEJ board member, is an independent journalism educator and former editor of Environment Writer. He edits the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2009-10 issue